Wednesday, January 28, 2009

This Week in Theater

Catherine and I decided to jam a lot of theater-going into this week: by Friday, we'll have seen six performances in six days... and we're not seeing anything tonight. So far, we've seen four performances since Sunday; on Friday we're seeing Target Margin at 8pm and our friend Robby's band, p o c c k e tt k n i ff e, in Brooklyn at 11pm. Part of the reason for this flurry of activity is that some of the shows are closing and if we don't go this week, we're not going to see them. The only drawback is that I'm going to have to spend tonight chained to my computer so that I can finish the next draft of my Gilgamesh script to meet the deadline for the reading on February 7 (so why am I taking the time to blog today? I'm at my day job—interruptions are fine for blogging, not so much for playwrighting).

Sunday, we saw Gina Gionfriddo's Becky Shaw at Second Stage. It's a quirky piece—sort of a comedy, sort of not—that makes no attempt to offer pat answers for the questions it poses; I liked it a lot. The two central characters, Max and Suzanna—beautifully played by David Wilson Barnes (who was fantastic in Lady earlier this year) and Emily Bergl—are emotionally stunted thirty-somethings who have literally grown up together (as a child, Max was brought to live with Suzanna's family after his mother died) and have never really addressed the sexual attraction they have for each another. In Act I, Suzanna and her slacker/novelist husband, Andrew, attempt to set Max up on a blind date with an attractive but emotionally damaged woman from Andrew's office, Becky Shaw; Act II offers us the aftermath of this disastrous event. Much of the humor in the piece comes from the barbs, insults and asides that Max, Suzanna and her MS-stricken mother, Susan (a very strong Kelly Bishop) constantly hurl; Gionfriddo clearly has a gift for wickedly acerbic one-liners. However, Becky Shaw is a complex and meticulously constructed work: each of the characters has an opportunity to reveal to the audience greater emotional depth and heartache that they hide from one another; these moments collectively give the play greater dimension and richness as the story progresses. Director Peter Dubois has created a tight, efficient production that serves Gionfriddo's writing extremely well; it's by far the best show I've seen at Second Stage this year.

Monday night brought us to the Hudson Guild Theater and William M. Hoffman and Anthony Holland's Cornbury: the Queen's Governor. For those of you who might not know, Peculiar Works presented a reading of the play last winter as a benefit and we have worked with Hoffman and the play's director, Tim Cusack, in both of our OFF Stage events in 2006-7. Hoffman and Holland were inspired to write the play, based upon the legends behind a painting at the New-York Historical Society, during the U.S. Bicentennial to provide a queer perspective that they found lacking in all of the celebrations. Although the play has had readings over the last 33 years, it had not been produced until now. David Greenspan, in the title role, is extremely funny and (as he always is) a joy to watch; his Cornbury—a cross-dressing fop who's always on the make—may be something of a cartoonish cliché, but Greenspan does a good job of keeping it fresh. Tim has emphasized the "play-within-a-play" convention of the piece, having the actors work the ropes to bring in the very 18th century-looking drops and placing the barely representational set pieces on stage; it's the right choice for Hoffman and Holland's play and serves the production well. The performances are a mixed bag: the stand outs for me are Everett Quinton, particularly funny as Parson Van Dam; Ken Kliban as Cornbury's Jewish administrator who spends much of the play teaching a Native American warrior (Eugene the Poogene) a mixture of English, Hebrew and Yiddish; and, though I'm certainly prejudiced toward my friend, Nomi Tichman is especially strong as Queen Anne performing a prison scene duet with Greenspan. It's a breezy evening at the theater, though perhaps a little slow at times; coming as it did at the end of a very difficult tech week and opening weekend, I imagine it will find its pace again easily.

We were back at HERE on Tuesday for Jennifer Gibbs and Kristin Marting's Sounding, adapted from Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea. This Culturemart production was very much a work-in-progress: it will eventually be a seven-character piece but the artists took this opportunity to focus on the relationships of the three primary characters. I really liked the fragmented quality this choice gave to the evening: the audience had to collect the story elements in bits and pieces as the performance progressed, which heightened the mystery of the piece. The central character, Leda, is a former rock star who has escaped to Cape Cod with her psychiatrist husband to mourn the loss of their child. We see snapshots of her former life in a series of concert performances and in her interactions with projected videos of The Stranger—a handsome young man who is mysteriously pursuing her. I'm intrigued by Kristin's work here—even as a partial sketch, it's a compelling piece—and surprised by the departures she's made from her previous projects: she's been developing a gestural vocabulary for several years that gives her productions a dance-like grace and richness. In Sounding, this vocabulary emerged chiefly in the concert flashbacks; as a result, these scenes stand out as being especially strong and engaging. The video work is gorgeous and Leda's interaction with The Stranger projections heightened the disconnect between the two characters; I'm anxious to see how adding the live actor into the mix will affect that relationship (of course, he may not ultimately appear live onstage... and I'll be interested to see how that works, too). Kristin will be continuing to develop the piece in HARP and the full production is scheduled for 2010; I'll definitely be going back to watch their progress over the next year.

Last night was spent at Corio for the Big Apple Burlesque in Last Call At The Starliner Lounge. While it's a very silly piece—I mean, get real: who wants to see a Beckettian burlesque?... hey, wait a minute: I think I would like to see that!—the group here has done a good job of bringing more than just the usual double entendres and cheap sex jokes to the festivities, including a few references I caught to The Third Man and other noir classics. (don't worry, though: there are plenty of double entendres and cheap sex jokes). This burlesque noir follows female private dick, Softy Malone (Honey Birdette), investigating the murder of performer, Sally O'Malley (Ruby Valentine); the case leads Softy to a variety of gender-bended stock characters: crooked cops (Clams Casino and Broadway Brassy); her fawning, one-eyed male secretary (Scott Rayow); her hard-boiled partner (Weirdee Girl); and The Voice (Snuffy Patterson), her inner monologue (we arrived a couple of minutes late so I don't know if they explained why The Voice was male). The live jazz combo that accompanies the performance, play songs ranging from early 20th century to more contemporary (my favorites: Rayow's "Behind One Eye" twist on the Pete Towsend song and Snuffy's rendition of Jolson's "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody" followed by Neil Diamond's "September Morn"). Of course, this is burlesque, so the action is occasionally interrupted by strip teases (though not as often as I expected); these are all well-performed and a lot of fun (kudos especially to Clams' act accompanied by the band's freaky interpretation of "Happiness is a Warm Gun"). Starliner Lounge is a delightful low art romp and one of the more original evenings of burlesque I've seen in a while.

Photo of Cornbury: The Queen's Governor, Gustavo Monroy

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